Category Archives: biennials

Back to the future in Liverpool


Liverpool doesn’t have a prehistoric cave, but it does have a historic Cavern. So it might prove not too much of a distraction from writing on paleolithic art. Beyond the Beatles heritage trail and the football, it had become a centre for visual arts in the UK.

It is also, one might argue, a marker for the benefits of remaining in Europe. The EU has invested more than £1.6 billion into this city, constructing and reconstructing an airport, a cruise terminal, two cathedrals and the Bluecoat gallery, etc. In 2008, Liverpool won its bid to become the European Capital of Culture. The city was filled with excitement, with spectacle, and with international art, thanks to an expanded role for the city’s Biennial, which began life in 1999.

My first visit to Liverpool was in 2010, for a Biennial with the theme ‘Touched”. And I was duly moved, maddened and changed by the things I saw there. Touched remains a personal touchstone 10 years on, an example of how art can inhabit an entire city.

At artist-led studio and gallery space The Royal Standard, I spoke to an artist and critic who already had plenty to say about art in Liverpool: Laura Robertson. Together with writer Mike Pinnington, she now runs The Double Negative, a visual arts blog oriented around the North West. Their new crowd-funded publication, Present Tense, forms the occasion for this post.

Together with Laura and Mike, six writers have explored aspects of the City of Culture’s legacy: in the form of public sculpture, digital culture, zines and even gardening. it also features an interview with John Walter, whose personal slice of cultural legacy includes the purchase of recent works by the venerable Walker Gallery.

Unlike some art writing, Present Tense is accessible in tone and digestible in format. A pocket-sized paperback with judicious black and white photography, it will sit well on the shelf next to the compact catalogue for the 2010 Biennial and act as a beacon for my own writing, thanks to its clear understanding of what is at stake in discussions on art.

But we cannot ignore the fact that this is a very tense present, and the prospect of sailing away on a small austere island with disaster capitalists at the helm is alarming.

Yet in Liverpool we find a city which has survived dark days and periods of so-called ‘managed decline’.  Whatever its legacy now, we must remember years like 2008 (or 2010!)  if we’re ever to see their like again.

Present Tense is available from The Double Negative for £14.99. See here for more details.

Photo diary: Marrakech Biennale 5

I lucked out with this: a press trip to the fifth Marrakech Biennale. Having never before visited North Africa, culture shock kicked in before we had even checked in at the (palatial) hotel.

As you see from this piece of guerilla marketing, the event asks ‘Where are we now?’. On my first night I was advised by some more experienced local hands to have adventures and ‘get lost’ here.

mb5 poster

Asim Waqif’s sound sculpture, The Pavilion of Debris, jockeys for attention with a number of nesting storks. The locals revere these migratory birds and the city was once home to a stork hospital(!)

mb5 asm waqif 2

My understanding of nomadic war machines is limited, but I imagine they would look something like this super-charged crossbow. Max Boufathal reportedly has popular culture in his sights.

mb5 max boufathal

This is perhaps the most talked about exhibit on opening week, an F1 engine made locally using craft materials. 50 different craftsmen and women were apparently used to construct this sculptural beast.

mb5 erci van hove

Possibly one of the strangest gigs this musician has ever been booked for. Gabriel Lester walled up a gnawa band inside a performative sculpture. I’m still not quite sure why, but it was compelling.

mb5 gabriel lester

Here you see an offline, open source, 3D printer engaged in crafting the model of a star shaped clay dwelling. Operators, Urban Fab Lab, aim to one day work on life-size scale in rural Africa.

mb5 fabbers

This was Hicham Benohoud’s iconic signage on the Bank Al Maghrib. Whether or not the Biennale has flipped this city on it’s head, there were plenty of sights to flip out this foreign visitor.

mb5 hicham benohoud

My favourite work, a geometry lecture at twilight in the city sqaure. As you can just about see, Saâdane Afif is here discussing the circle with an audience of everyday Moroccans, who were rapt.

mb5 saadane afif

Of all the venues, this unfinished opera house was the most impressive. The Theatre Royal now houses a sound installation by freq_out, in which 12 composers work in 12 stirring frequencies.

mb5 freq-out

Finally, a proper showstopper by Alexander Ponomarev. Take one desert, one helicopter, one monumental installation of a ship and mix up with a set of letters in the sand to breathtaking effect.

mb5 ponomarev

And finally, a tortoise, attempting in vain to climb a step at the festival hub El Fenn. So long little guy! I get the feeling he’ll still be here in 2016; let’s hope this cosmopolitan Biennale is as well.

mb5 tortoise